May’s Story of the Week (yes, I know May is a month) was called Hope Blows, the first in a series on faith, hope, and charity. Here’s a snippet. To read the full story, click on Read more.
This was the kind of bar she never went into, never looked at twice. A dive bar, and not a cool dive bar for yuppies who wanted to trick themselves into believing they were slumming by drinking their microbrews in a place with walls covered in graffiti and waitresses covered with multiple piercings. No, this was a real dive bar – graffiti and piercings, sure, but not a microbrew within hailing distance. Cheap beer, cheap whiskey, and the chance to buy bad cocaine if you had the cash and the courage. Loud music, mostly country. Big guys wearing faded t-shirts with ripped off sleeves under denim vests covered in Harley patches, tattoos twitching on their beefy arms. Women in spike-heeled black boots whose curves overflowed their tight jeans and whose hair showed the effects of too many bad perms.
This was the kind of bar she never went into, never looked at twice. A dive bar, and not a cool dive bar that was frequented by yuppies who wanted to trick themselves into believing they were slumming by drinking their microbrews in a place with graffiti covering the walls and waitresses covered with multiple piercings. No, this was a real dive bar – graffiti and piercings, sure, but not a microbrew within hailing distance. Cheap beer, cheap whiskey, and the chance to buy bad cocaine if you had the cash and the courage. Loud music, mostly country. Big guys wearing faded t-shirts with ripped off sleeves under denim vests covered in Harley patches, tattoos twitching on their beefy arms. Women in spike-heeled black boots whose curves overflowed their tight jeans and whose hair showed the effects of too many bad perms.
She clearly didn’t fit in, with her work clothes and sensible heels, but then again, she didn’t fit anywhere these days. So why not be a misfit here as well as anywhere? What the fuck. She ordered a beer and drank it, then ordered another and took a first sip.
The guy who took the bar stool next to hers seemed to fit the place just fine. Mullet and tattoos, but skinnier than most of the other men in the place. Just a nod to the bartender to get his regular drink – Budweiser and a shot of whiskey. Even though the city had outlawed smoking in bars the year before, he lit up and no one said a word. The bartender took an ashtray out from under the bar and put it under his cigarette. Like the old days of Prohibition, she thought, when they had to hide the gin. Today they hide the ashtrays.
The guy noticed her glancing at his cigarette. “How’s it going,” he asked, or at least she assumed it was a question because it started with “how,” though his inflection made it sound more like a statement. A definitive statement about the dark abyss of modern life, she thought to herself.
“You know,” she responded. “Shit happens.”
He grunted in a way that could have been a chuckle. “It does, doesn’t it.” Again, it was a question grammatically, but a statement in spirit.
For a moment she wondered if he was going to hit on her, and how firmly she would have to reject him. She was in no mood for romance, not after today. Then he took a paperback out of his jacket pocket and started to read. She turned her head to get a look at the title, expecting something on motorcycle maintenance, and not the Zen or art of it, either.
To her amazement, the guy was reading A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole.
“You like it, that book?”
“I think it’s the funniest book ever written.”
He looked at her for a minute, as if he were trying to decide whether to tell her to mind her own business or just plain fuck off.
“I find it tragic,” he said.
“Well, of course. That’s what makes it so funny.”
“You find tragedy amusing, do you?”
“Naturally. Nothing is more hilarious than a good tragedy. Comedy doesn’t cut it. Comedy isn’t real. Tragedy is real.”
“You had yourself a bad day?”
“Not at all. I had a great day. The best day, in fact.”
“Mmmm. And what made it so great?”
“For about five minutes, I think, I ditched hope.”
“You ditched what?”
“Hope -is she your clingy friend or something?”
“Sort of. Hope clings to me, but it isn’t a she or a he. It’s just hope. I’ve been trying to ditch it for as long as I can remember, and every once in a while, like today, it seems like I do. Then it comes back.”
“Most people want more hope, not less.”
“Most people are idiots, don’t you find?”
“Mmmm.” That was definitely a chuckle.
Someone switched the bar’s one old television set to the election coverage. U.S. Elects Obama 44th President scrolled across the bottom of the screen as the camera panned across a cheering crowd.
“Now that brings some hope,” he said, nodding toward the screen.
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” she replied, finishing her second beer and ordering a third.
After the thorough destruction of hope by the Bush administration – they buried it with habeas corpus, with the Patriot Act, with weapons of mass destruction – the message of Senator Obama’s presidential campaign was right welcome in most parts of the world. Hit a chord, you might say. Brought hope back into fashion.
“That guy’s made hope real again,” the guy said. “You don’t think that’s good?”
“No, I don’t. I don’t think that is good. I think that is a tragedy.”
“You mean it’s hilarious.”
She took a deep breath.
“I mean that hope, my friend, hope is fucked. Hope is fucked more than a blow-up doll owned by a lonely teenage Dungeon Master. Hope is fucked and it fucks you. Mr. John Hiatt, one of the best singer-songwriters of his generation, and the very best one you’ve never heard of, writes this about hope:
Through the blackest night, oh you still hold on tight
Hope is your finest work, it’s your finest work
Hope is your finest work of art
“But he is wrong. Hope is your finest work of farce. I know this because hope is my constant and intimate companion, it clings to me, it will not leave me be. Hope shadows me like a bad private detective whose presence is as obvious as the fact that he needs a shave and a haircut.”
She took another swig.
“Hope, in short, is my stalker. I cannot ditch hope no matter how hard I try. And oh, how hard I have tried. I have tried to ditch hope by publicly shaming it, by publicly denying it, by privately pleading with it, by beating it senseless. I have tried to ditch hope by setting myself up for disappointment again and again until any sane person would capitulate. I have tried to bargain with hope, to bribe hope, to trick hope into leaving me alone. For about five minutes today, I thought it had worked. My spirit was broken. It doesn’t matter why. It only matters that I was too sad and too tired to hope anymore. I was ready to accept what was. Peace in our time.
“But hope always finds me again, it always ignores my wishes and pleas, it always forgives me. Hope takes perverse pleasure in lying low for a while, letting me get just a touch complaisant, just a bit convinced that my cynicism is going to carry the day. Then it loves to jump out of a lonely alley, out from behind a partially closed door, out of the looming dark to take possession of me again, to override my autonomy and bend me to its will.
“Oh sure, the conventional wisdom is that hope is a good thing, that it lights the territory of life, that it is essential to ‘progress.’ Most people would say they don’t want to live without hope.
“I say, I don’t want to live with it. I say to hope, move out of my house, please. I don’t like roommates in general, and I really don’t like you. Hope doesn’t even pay its share of the rent and utilities. Hope is a cheap bastard, among its other faults.
He stared at her. She realized she’d gone way too far, whether it was the beer talking or just the buildup of dashed and crashed and burned hope that sat like a slag heap in her guts, putting out fumes that made her head swim and her ears buzz, whatever it was, she’d gone too far and said too much. This guy would be convinced she was crazy, and she’d be lucky if he just left her alone, instead of calling the cops or the mental health professionals. Then he spoke.
“It’s not hope you’re so pissed at,” he said.
“It’s not? I’m pretty sure it is.”
“Nope. Hope is just taking the bullet for something else entirely.”
“Then what is it? What am I so mad at?”
“I’m not sure you really want to know. You are having a lot of fun pretending to be pissed at hope.”
“I’m not having – I don’t – yes, I do want to know. Tell me, oh wise one.”
He paused, just for the dramatic effect, she was sure.
“You are angry – no, you are completely enraged – at love.”
Now it was her turn to stare. “Love?”
“Love. It keeps disappointing you, doesn’t it? You keep trying, keep loving, and it doesn’t come back to you. It runs away and leaves nothing but pain behind, or so you tell yourself. But you can’t stop, because if you stop, well, then there’s nothing left at all.”
“I don’t know what you are ….”
“You do, you know exactly what I am talking about. You are hopelessly in love with love.”
He stood, drank the last of his beer, ran his finger around his whiskey glass and licked it, and put the book back in his pocket.
“The way I see it, you have two options here. One, you can go on being pissed at hope, and pretending that’s all it is. Two, you can decide not to love anymore.”
He zipped his jacket.
“Me, I know which one I’d pick. And I’d bet the farm I know which one you’re going to pick, too.”
He turned and walked toward the door. As he put his hand on the knob, he looked back and grinned.
“Mr. Hiatt also says, ‘love can fire your heart, burn it clean through. That’s what love can do.’”
And he was gone.
She drank the last of her beer, thought for a minute, put her jacket on, paid her tab, and headed out into the cold rainy night.